Les Cités obscures (The Obscure Cities) is a series of graphic novels by the Belgian comics artist François Schuiten and his friend, writer Benoît Peeters, set on a counter-earth located opposite to the Earth on the other side of the Sun. In this fictional world, humans live in independent city-states, each of which has developed a distinct civilization, each characterized by a distinctive architectural style. Schuiten’s graphic representations and architectural styles are heavily influenced by Belgian Art Nouveau architect Victor Horta, who worked in Brussels at the turn of the 20th century. In French, the word obscure can mean ‘mysterious’ or ‘hidden’, rather than as in English ‘little known’ or ‘odd’.
An important motif is the process of what Schuiten called Bruxellisation, the destruction of his historic Brussels in favor of anonymous, low-quality modernist office and business buildings. Around 1980, Schuiten began drafting a parallel world of vintage architectural grandeur reflecting his 1950s childhood memories of Brussels. Approaching his friend Peeters, who had become a comic writer, about this imaginary world, Peeters infused his own philosophical ideas into plot lines he developed for the project.
The first novel in the series, Murailles de Samaris (Walls of Samaris) was serialised in French in 1983 in the Franco-Belgian comics magazine À Suivre published by Casterman. Casterman was also the publisher of The Adventures of Tintin series of comic books by the Belgian cartoonist, Hergé. After Murailles de Samaris, eleven other novels followed, as well as collaborations with other authors on a number of works set in similar settings. Only six of the novels have so far been published in English, Murailles de Samaris being published in 1987 as The Great Walls of Samaris, Stories of the Fantastic.
Schuiten’s work can be considered a mix of the scientific fantasies of Jules Verne, the strange worlds of René Magritte, the graphical worlds of M C Escher and Gustave Doré, as well as architectural visions of Horta and Étienne-Louis Boullée.